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Shakespeare, King Lear: Acts III-V
(click here for Acts I-III)


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Taking stock
At the end of Act II, here's where we stand:

  • We've seen all the "good" characters banished/exiled/excluded from the sphere of action: Kent, Edgar, Cordelia, the King of France. (EXCEPTION: the Fool. Interestingly, the Fool and Cordelia are never on stage at the same time, and were traditionally played by the same actor. Since Kent and Edgar each manage to stick around by dint of adopting humble disguises--servant and beggar, respectively--it's tempting to wonder if the Fool, capering about telling Lear the truths he doesn't want to hear, represents Cordelia in "humble disguise"...also, Lear will refer to Cordelia as "my poor fool" at V.iii.312.)
  • We've seen normal cause/effect relationships suspended (why does Lear divide and give away his kingdom? why does Gloucester go to Dover to commit suicide? why does Edgar accompany him--as Mad Tom? Why don't people reveal themselves sooner? why do Albany et al. forget about Lear and Cordelia? Why, why, why...?)
  • We've been told more than once that "Nothing will come of nothing" (I.i.90) and "Nothing can be made out of nothing" (I.iv.130); Gloucester observes, with terrible irony, that "if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles" (I.ii.36)--a prediction that comes true in an extreme way at III.vii (~57-93). The discourse of the play, then, prompts us to expect "Nothing" (or even "nothing"s of different kinds, in different vocabularies), even as the plot (think of that fairytale beginning, in which Cordelia does get a "Prince Charming," if nothing else) seems to demand a happy ending.
  • We've also seen "something" turned into "nothing" by a kind of process of division (those of you who still remember your math will note that this is against the rules, since in mathematical terms a dividend of "something" will never yield a quotient of "nothing"): the Fool's "egg" (I.iv.152-156) is divided into nothing, which reminds us that Lear has done the same with his kingdom; Goneril and Regan, in the heartrending fourth scene of Act II, do the same with Lear's retinue. (If you can read Lear's passionate, heartbroken speech at II.iv.264-286 with dry eyes, you should probably check your pulse.)
  • "Bonds" broken: King--state (Lear/kingdom--one question it's important to ask, as Lear gives up his throne, is What about his subjects? Doesn't the king have a contractual relationship with them as well?); Master--servant (Lear/Kent); Suitor/object (Burgundy/Cordelia); Father--child (Lear/Cordelia, Glo./Edgar); Sibling--sibling (Cordelia and sisters, the two Ed.s). The last bond (of Lear to his "bad" daughters, Goneril and Regan) is broken when the heartless sisters deprive Lear of his retinue; promptly (II.iv.287), a storm descends, and will not abate until the end of Act III.
  • We have seen a double plot unfold, comprising two parallel but opposite stories of old men who, swayed by false testimony from duplicitous offspring, disown their "good" children in favour of the "bad" ones:
Irascible old man, LEAR
(Everyman as King)
  Gullible old man, GLOUCESTER (Everyman as ordinary gentleman)
Each falls into error, rejecting true child in favor of false one(s)
<=                                       =>
Loses mind (Gk. logos, "reason" or "word"), and life
  Loses eyes, and life
Lear treats words ("Which of you shall we say...") as if substantial
--creating the portions of his daughters' inheritance; as if, by laying down the conditions for his daughters' speaking, he can ensure that their words will correspond to the truth. As king, Lear has experienced a God-like identity between word and deed ("our sentence and our power," I.i.175); he is accustomed to the idea that his utterances are definitive. In his world, therefore, there is no irony; he has had no reason to believe that language and reality are not identical --until now.
  Unlike Lear, Gloucester mistrusts words, rejecting what he is told (a fact Edmund recognises and exploits), in favor of ocular evidence. Had Gloucester simply taken Edmund at his word ("I know no news, my Lord..."), the latter's plot would not have succeeded; Gloucester looks around Edmund's words to his gestures (the "terrible dispatch" of the letter into his pocket). Where Lear believes in speeches, Gloucester believes in signs and portents; where Lear commands his children to "Speak," Gloucester repeatedly demands of Edmund, "Let's see."


Moving forward...
As for last week, please make certain you have understood exactly what all the words mean before turning your mind to the following questions:

(1) Keep track of negation (as well as cognition): "no" (and its homonym "know"), "nothing", "never" etc.....Where is Shakespeare going with this?

(2) After all that language of contractual obligation, is there any justice to be had from the play? See also question (7), below.

(3) What about those social bonds we were talking about? What role do they play?

(4) Explore recurrent imagery (appearing sometimes in metaphorical, sometimes as literal form): sight/blindness, clothing/nakedness, "nature," weather, sex, madness. Chart the meanings of each image through various moments in the play.

(5) Disguise and recognition (remember the Greek Tragedies)--where do you see such moments in King Lear? How are they significant (symbolically, dramatically, rhetorically)? Don't forget to include verbal disguise (whose many variants we saw in Boccaccio).

(6) Shakespeare is known to have read Montaigne (in a translation by one John Florio, published in 1603, but "circulating in manuscript long before that"1). Do you see any influence of Montaigne's thought in King Lear? (See, e.g., Act III, sc. iv....)

(7) At various points in the play, characters comment on the concept of supernatural forces presiding over their affairs: in addition to Edmund's invocation to Nature at I.ii, Gloucester calls on "Kind gods" (III.vii.93); Edgar cautions Edmund, "The gods are just" (V.iii.172); and Albany says "This shows you are above,/You justicers, that these our nether crimes/So speedily can venge" (IV.ii.79-81) and announces "All friends shall taste/the wages of their virtue, and all foes/The cup of their deservings" (V.iii.311). What manner of forces are these? What manner of "justice" are they conceived of as purveying (it's okay to think along "Old Testament" vs. "New Testament" lines here--eye-for-an-eye justice or turn-the-other-cheek justice)? How would it compare to the justice of Dante's Inferno? And do you see evidence in the play that substantiates the characters' belief in such "justicers"?

(8) Finally, what does a human being need? That is, what is it, in the universe of the play, that makes us human; how much, and what, can you take away from a person before you strip them of their humanity? Take Lear's speeches at II.iv.264ff. and III.iv.102ff. as your starting-points, but think your way to broader conclusions.

1Dennis Kay, Shakespeare: His Life, Work, and Era (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992), 155.

Shakespeare Resources on the Web

King Lear Resource Site at Rutgers University--a thoughtful selection of Web resources related to Shakespeare's masterpiece.

"Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet," a site at Palomar College (San Marcos, CA) aiming to be "a complete annotated guide to the scholarly Shakespeare resources available on Internet."

Shakespeare Web -- another collection of Web resources, some high-brow, some irrelevant.

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